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Photo Credit: Lindsay A. Mogle / Utica Comets

Zack MacEwen is Better Than I Thought He Would Be

I’ve known this day would be coming for quite a while now.

Way back in the summer, when the Canucks held a summer showcase to show off all of their prospects, Canucks fans got a glimpse at the next crop of prospects. Some came with more cachet than others, and some performed better than their peers. It’s not always the highly touted ones that perform the best. That’s the beauty of a small sample tournament against some volatile competition.

One player who performed pretty well was Zack MacEwen, the QMJHL free agent that the Canucks signed from the Gatineau Olympique late last season. I’ve written on MacEwen once before, and you may recall the article: it was the one in which I lambasted the Canucks for using a contract on him at all.

I’ll admit, it was harsh. Probably unduly so, given the relatively small repercussions of signing a single player. My reaction certainly had as much to do with how little the Canucks were getting out of the previous years’ signings of Yan-Pavel Laplante and Mackenze Stewart – both of whom failed to stick in the American League – as it had to do with MacEwen himself.

The reaction to it was pretty strong at the time. “What if his dad reads this hatchet job,” I was asked. It was never something that I would have considered. I’m still not sure whether I should be considering it.

It hasn’t been forgotten either. I heard about it plenty when MacEwen scored a very nice goal in the Summer Showcase at the Canucks’ prospect development camp.

I heard about it again when he had a strong showing at the Young Stars tournament in Penticton. And I’ve certainly been hearing about it now that MacEwen has gotten himself off to a legitimately strong start in his first professional season. Following Monday’s game, MacEwen had totalled four goals and 20 points in 35 games, tying him for third on the Comets in scoring.

One thing I’ve see a lot since that article: what would I do if I ended up being wrong and MacEwen turned out to be an NHL player?

There’s a simple answer to that: Yes, I’ll admit that I was wrong.

Despite this site’s reputation, our writers haven’t been afraid to admit being wrong before. Our site editor, J.D. Burke in particular, has been forthcoming about players that he’d underestimated in the past, delivering “I Was Wrong” articles on Adam Gaudette and Matthew Tkachuk. Jackson McDonald published an article on the wrongness of the site’s assessment of Bo Horvat back in 2014 on behalf of former editor Rhys Jessop (Rhys is allowed to be wrong in this instance, as he was so very right that other time).

As for myself, I’ve managed to avoid having to publish an article like this. Partly, this is because I was once a very positive fan/writer, and didn’t do many “takedowns”. And it’s partly because I generally refrain from giving too strong of an opinion on something I can’t know with complete certainty, like whether a 20-year old prospect will pan out.

Well this time I pushed all my chips in, and so far it’s not turning out the way I thought it would. He certainly hasn’t made the NHL yet, and there’s a long road to go, but he has wildly surpassed my expectations, and is easily trending more towards NHL call up than ECHL reassignment at this point.

So here it is: Zack MacEwen is better than I thought he would be.

In my defence, for all the impressiveness of MacEwen’s rookie AHL season (in addition to his performances at the Summer Showcase and Young Stars games), it changes nothing about the reasoning that I gave in the original article. There were a myriad of red flags: MacEwen had a very late development curve, he benefited from playing with Vitali Abramov, and he had a lopsided situational scoring distribution.

Still, there are things that I’ve liked about MacEwen. He’s big, for one thing. Size is becoming less relevant in the NHL these days, but the strength that is built into his 6-foot-4 frame is still very useful. He’s got plenty of speed, and he’s got a decent set of hands, especially for a big man. He puts the moves on some defenders now and again in Utica, and doesn’t look like he’s at any serious risk of losing control of the puck when he does.

There are question marks, too. His passing, for instance, is suspect. It can be a little off target, and the velocity is frequently too hard for teammates to handle.

By but and large, many of the red flags that caught my attention when he was signed out of the Q haven’t been present in the American League. His late development curve is no longer as relevant as his current performance. Grouped with players his age in junior, MacEwen wasn’t even playing in the QMJHL (let alone standing out) when he was rookie eligible. Pitted against AHL rookies now though, he stacks up well, sitting 24th in points and 33rd in points per game (minimum 10 GP).

From a prediction standpoint, MacEwen is beginning to look quite promising. He has an Expected Likelihood of Success of 27%, which is, impressively, the fifth highest among Canucks prospects right now (not including Elias Pettersson and Jonathan Dahlen, who are both without comparables by virtue of overmax-ing their cohort production range). His statistical matches include former Canucks like Zack Kassian, Jim Sandlak, and Greg Adams (the good one), as well as current Canucks coach Travis Green. The majority of his matches fall in the bottom six/replacement level range, and pGPS has assigned his cohort a weighted average line assignment of “4th Line Forward”.

Of course, as an amateur free agent signing, a fourth line role in the NHL would be cause for celebration rather than criticism.

This is a sizable jump up from the projections in his junior career. As mentioned, one of the red flags I originally noted was that he didn’t play regularly in the Q until his draft-plus-two season. In the two junior campaigns, his Expected Likelihoods of Success were rated at 2 and 4%, making this season a very noticeable jump. (It’s the green and red lines you want to pay attention to here – they have the highest degree of predictability).

Circling back to another criticism from last season – that he benefited heavily from playing with superior linemates in Gatineau – it would be difficult to insinuate that MacEwen has benefited from playing with any teammates in particular in Utica, especially of late, when the Comets forward ranks have been shredded by an assortment of injuries. He did have the opportunity to play with the likes of Boucher, Goldobin, and Chaput, when they were all together in Utica, but it’s not like all his production came at those times – he’s been pretty consistent with an array of linemates. In fact, check his four goals and you’ll see that eight different players have assisted on them. The same can be said of his assists: they are highly diverse.

I’ve mentioned before that you can often tell a lot about what a coach thinks of a player by how they are deployed. With MacEwen it was clear early on that he had a believer in Trent Cull. Even before the injury bug starting wiping out the organization, MacEwen started moving up the lineup, playing in the top six after Boucher’s first call up, with Goldobin and Chaput still in the lineup.

MacEwen has also been a fixture on the power play since taking over for Joseph LaBate as the netfront player in mid-November following LaBate’s first injury You can see in the distribution above that most of his power play points (the green bars) are associated with players who populate the first unit: Boucher, Goldobin, Philip Holm, even Cole Cassels of late. MacEwen has also spotted in some penalty kill time with all the injuries, which is a testament to how much the coach trusts him. He has rewarded his coach with consistent effort and production.

So it certainly appears that I underestimated Zack MacEwen. It’s still too early to tell if he’s an NHLer, but with a solid rookie season in the works, he could very well be on the short list as an NHL call up in the latter half of the season. There’s a humbling lesson to be learned here for sure, namely that when it comes to prospects, it’s rarely a good idea to speak with certainty. While many of the ideas that I wrote about hold true, the sheer difficulty in predicting prospect performance year over year necessitates a little (or a lot) more nuance.

I don’t believe this takes away from prospect assessment as a whole. Many times I’ve mentioned that prospect analytics (and hockey analytics in general) is about the weighting of percentages. We deal in probabilities, not certainties. When you make a claim like the one I made, sometimes you look smart, and sometimes you look dumb. Right now, I look the latter. But that hasn’t precluded me from looking right on other things, and it won’t in the future either.

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t want any of the Canucks’ signings to be bad. I want the players to have success because I want the team to have success because I like the team. I try as much as possible to look at the managerial moves and player performance from an objective standpoint, and would never wish ill on any specific players just so I can be right about something. In Zack MacEwen’s case, it’s excellent news for all involved that he appears to be much better than I originally gave him credit for. In situations like these, I’m more than happy to be proven wrong.

  • Puck Viking

    He was a nice pick up. I think its pretty hard to go wrong with signing guys like this and also why its a good idea to try and keep your contracts at about 45-47 going in to the end of the season.

    Id rather them add a few guys like this every year then to sign their draft picks to entry level deals or resigning some of the current Utica prospects if they dont fully deserve it.

    With any of these young UFAs(CHL, Euro or NCAA) get them signed give them a couple years to show what they got and if they dont show much cut bait and use the space on another one.

  • Beefus

    I would love to see both MacEwen and Gaudette given a shot with the Canucks after the trade deadline. There will be a big hole to fill at centre as early as next season if Henrik retires.

    • tyhee

      The Comets still have a reasonable shot at making the playoffs. The Canucks have a mathematical chance but not a realistic one.

      His size and speed might mean he shows some good things in a tryout, but as someone who has come out of nowhere the last couple of seasons he probably has lots of development still to do in the AHL. I’d rather see him stay there and go through the playoff race there and hope he continues to progress so that we see him get a callup in the future, but it would seem to me to be rushing things for it to be this season.

      Then again, if the Canucks get a big run of injuries to forwards, there are only a few forwards ahead of him for callups from Utica.

  • LTFan

    As others before me have stated, it is refreshing that a blogger will admit they were wrong. Assessing any athlete at 18 years of age, except for the outstanding ones, is a gamble. All you have to do is look at players who were drafted in Round 1 of the Draft over the years and have played none or only a handful of games in the NHL. On the other side there are players such as MacEwen who develop later. Chris Tanev was an undrafted player and he has turned out very well.

  • Killer Marmot

    This article nicely demonstrates the limitations of analytics.

    Statistics are terrific for telling you what happens on average to players with similar numbers. But no one is average, and experienced scouts might be able to identify those players who are likely to beat the odds. They know which shortcomings are likely to respond to practice and sound coaching, and which ones doom the player to the minors for eternity.

    In time, analytics might get so powerful that even the best scouts can’t identify such outliers reliably, but they are not there yet.

  • Killer Marmot

    Many of Trump’s initiatives are anti-authoritarian — particularly his reduction of regulations and government bureaucracies. You may agree or disagree with these reductions, but they are manifestly a lessening of the size and power of the state.

  • defenceman factory

    Good for you Jeremy. I’ve been rooting for Zack ever since I read your original article.It stuck in my memory as particularly harsh. Completely fair to be pessimistic about future success based on statistics but you did go well beyond just pessimism. Canucks have missed on some signings of undrafted players but somewhere there is a Canuck scout who got this one right. Whoever that was deserves some acknowledgement.

    MaEwen has gotta have a hell of a work ethic, from undrafted in Junior A to an impact player in the AHL at 21. With his size and that trajectory this signing could really be special.

  • Killer Marmot

    An error in logic that is sometimes made is thinking that statement A leads to statement B:

    A: Players who have these given numbers have had X% chance of having an NHL career.

    B: Any player who is signed by a club who has these given set of numbers has X% chance of having a successful NHL career.

    Why does A not lead to B? Because the player was not chosen at random. He will have been heavily scrutinized by the club, and specifically selected from among numerous alternatives. The manager will have far more information at his disposable than basic analytics uses, including scouting assessments. When you add information, the probability changes, sometimes radically.

    • This doesn’t follow, because by my understanding, none of the players in the data set were chosen at random. Every time a team picks a player in the 7th round, they’re trying to rely on scouting to find the the outlier who will succeed, and 98% of the time, they fail.

      There is a problem with these models though, which is similar, but not the same, as what you’re getting at. Saying “4% of similar players made the NHL” is not the same as saying “this player has a 4% chance of making the NHL”. Every player is different. Pointing out that similar players made the nHL 4% of the time suggests that this player is less likely to succeed than a player whose statistical cohorts made the NHL 90% of the time, but it doesn’t mean “this player has a 4% chance of success” because this player is not those other players.

      But as I was getting at in my above comment, most scouts do not consistently pick players who out-perform their statistical cohorts – if they did, it would alter those models and change the predicted outcomes. There may be a couple of scouts out there who are able to consistently pick players who outperform their statistical cohorts (which is different from picking players with better than average cohorts for their rounds), and if those scouts exist, they should be the best-paid scouts in the league and should be coveted by every team.

      • Killer Marmot

        If the players in category A were restricted to signed players then I might agree with you. But often the argument is made from ALL players with given numbers in a given league, whether they are signed with an NHL club or not.

    • defenceman factory

      A huge win. Absolutely.

      Dowd is often described as a 13th forward. This seems a reasonable appraisal so accepting that any improvement on Dowd is automatically a regular roster player. Only a small percentage of players drafted in later rounds become NHL regulars. Finding one among undrafted players is exceptional.

  • Ronning4ever

    Drafting and signing amateur players is all about playing odds. I assume most coaches look for a combination of skills, strength/size and attitude, so there’s always going to be variations on things pan out.

    That said, the author works pretty heavily with a predictive model that seems logically sound. The question he and other analytics folks will always face is: is their predictive model better than what others are using.

    Benning’s draft history (or at least his groups) speaks for itself. They don’t call it the ‘Jim Benning era’ in Buffalo for nothing. Has the author compared his Pgs model to actual outcomes yet? Is Benning beating his model? Would love to see an magnum opus article like that one day.

  • Rolland

    Another great article, thank you very much. No need to admit wrong, you’ve proven yourself over and over. But thanks for being human.

    A lot to be said for size with a degree of speed and skill, its needed on a team imo.

  • Steamer

    Nice article, Jeremy. Shows balance in your perspective, being capable of admitting where you were wrong is a strength.
    Your reaction to MacE’s signing was understandable given the #’s of such signings & their relatively lacklustre rsults. I shared your sentiment last spring, but excepted MacEwen due to having watched significant video of his Junior games & noted his size,speed & hands. Carcone has continued to improve & if MacEwen follows suit then we may see one – or both – in the NHL in the future. Even if they remain in the AHL, however, their presence & ability increases the over-all depth of the organization. Both MacEwen & Carcone are character players who will stick up for themselves & their teammates & this is another element that the Cnucks could use.

  • DJ_44

    MacEwen’s been noticeable all season in Utica. Aside from the skill set mentioned in the article, this kid is a really smart hockey player. Couple that with a soft set of hands and big reach around the net…..you have a good middle six guy.

    Advanced suggestions for the next next mix cupla article “Ben Hutton; I was wrong!”

  • Silverback

    “There are question marks, too. His passing, for instance, is suspect. It can be a little off target, and the velocity is frequently too hard for teammates to handle.”

    Hmm. He does have 16 assists…so his passing can’t be so bad.

  • hobart16

    Good article. Macewen competes harder than most and always keeps his feet moving. He was rewarded last night with two goals. He has the physical attributes to have a shot at the NHL and he took advantage of a slew of opportunities that came his way with all the injuries the Comets have suffered.